October 23, 2008

Soup From Now On

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A year before Mitch Hedberg’s death in 2005, one reviewer described the comedian’s deteriorating and increasingly drug-addled stand-up act thus: “Commenting that he liked drugs, especially Xanax, but he was happy with anything, several small pills found their way to the stage, at least one of which he swallowed after mumbling, ‘What is this?’ He sat back down on the stage and became the picture of a drunken, washed up loser.”
Hedberg’s stand-up act was not quite divorced from his drug use, with his scruffy, spaced-out demeanor and frequent references (“I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to too.”). Yet Hedberg’s performances — much like his drug problem — were always inextricable from his personal life. Not “personal” like any number of ’80s and ’90s anecdotal comedians’ shit about my-wife-and-kids. Rather, Hedberg was personal in that his material was structured and presented: accessible observations and musings from the day-to-day life of a TV-watching, sandwich-enjoying snark who hung out in guitar stores with fellow stoners and happened to be a stand-up comedian.
In the two albums Hedberg cut in his lifetime, the comedian would spontaneously mock his own ideas. (“Some of these jokes need work. We’re like half there. Unfortunately you fuckers had to miss out on the good half.”) Many of his premises would begin with, “I thought of this joke,” as if he were with a group of drunk friends trying to impress them with clever fantasies and absurd paradoxes. Hedberg invited the audience into his intimate world, as if this veteran stand-up were bouncing ideas off you and not delivering an act so polished and well-tread that, towards the end of his life, audience members would yell out the punchlines before the laconic comic could find his way there.
It is appropriate, then, that Hedberg’s third album Do You Believe in Gosh? is a rough draft of new material recorded live months before his death. At barely 39 minutes long, Gosh is a slim volume that resonates as the leftover notes of a keenly perceptive wit taken before his time. Hedberg first riffs with the medium of stand-up, asking if there are speakers in the bathroom. “I’ll save my more physical stuff for later. This is all audio.” He seamlessly migrates to an improbable joke about stealing a golden “M” from the Improv sign, “Cause the ‘M’ seems like it weighs the most,” that turns into a fantastic extended riff on the alphabet, an asinine premise held together by nothing more than Hedberg’s powerful battery of laugh lines.
Despite Gosh’s brevity, the material is top shelf. The recording isn’t cut up like Hedberg’s previous albums, and there are extended bits where the comic, apparently drunk himself, tussles with drunken hecklers, exhibiting his preternatural ability to think on his feet.
Several of the jokes do fall flat, and Hedberg naturally pokes fun at his writing process (“I wrote down ‘Tea Ski,’ what the fuck kind of joke is that?”). But Hedberg was always too humble: in his playful stage attitude, he undersold his craft in a way that obscured the pervasive wit, economy of verse and sharp social commentary that could only come from an acutely critical mind and an experienced writer. Hedberg’s exuberant love of life, contemplation and fantasy made him something of an artist manqué, whose dim demeanor and prolific drug use warded off the respect he was due. Hedberg’s tragic life is reminiscent of that gay Victorian alcoholic whose witticisms are also largely remembered today. As Mitch said, “This comedy is all part of my get-rich-slow scheme.”